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Q From Harry Sayle: I was taught in high school that there is no such word as enthuse, I hear a lot of people using it in sentences such as, ‘I am enthused about the ballgame’. Shouldn’t it just be enthusiastic? Enthuse is in the dictionary, so was my high school teacher wrong years ago, or was the word added because it is so commonly used?

A Enthuse is one of those words that once made traditionalists quiver with rage. Even now it has not been fully accepted by everyone.

Your teacher was going too far in saying that the word didn’t exist, though that vehement denial may just have been a way of impressing on young minds that it was a word to be avoided. As you say, it’s now in every dictionary. It also has a long history in the language — it was used as long ago as 1827 by a Scots traveller in North America: “My humble exertions will I trust convey and enthuse, and draw attention to the beautifully varied verdure of N.W. America”.

Grammarians disliked it at the time because it’s a back-formation. If a word looks as though it might be a derivative, sometimes people will take the ending off, thereby accidentally creating a word that didn’t previously exist. In the case of enthusiasm, it looks as though it might derive from a verb enthuse, though it doesn’t. To experts in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the process looked like an ignorant mistake. These days it is recognised as a common and legitimate method of word formation (verbs like classify, commentate and edit were formed from nouns in this way).

Even now, nearly two centuries after enthuse was created, the usual advice in style guides is to be careful about using it, because an aura of non-respectability still hangs about it and it is regarded in some quarters as a brash and gushy informal word. However, it is much more accepted now than it was even a few years ago, and is in fairly common use — even, for example, in the more staid American newspapers, usually as the adjective enthused rather than the verb itself. It is still avoided in formal prose, but then an emotion like enthuse is hardly likely to appear in formal writing anyway.

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Page created 08 Sep 2001